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Loser take all? Our electoral rules demand reform
By Rob Richie and Steven Hill

October 20, 2004

With Republicans controlling the White House and Congress, Democrats' interest in the 2004 elections has soared, boosting their voter registration and projected voter mobilization. They could well edge Republicans in the popular vote in this November's elections for the presidency and both houses of Congress.

There's just one problem for believers in fairness and accountability: due
to the perversities of our electoral rules, that prospective sweep may not
prevent retention of Republican dominance. Our antiquated electoral rules can deny majority rule in each of our major elections.


The 2000 election makes it easy to explain how this could happen in the
presidential race. George Bush was elected even though Al Gore won more than a half million more popular votes nationally and even though the combined popular vote for Gore and the Green nominee Ralph Nader both in Florida and across the nation was more than 50 percent.

The reason is two-fold. First we don't elect the president directly, instead
relying on that democratic dinosaur: the Electoral College. Four times in
our history we have had wrong-way winners, and it will happen again if John Kerry increases his majorities in some big states like California, Illinois and New York, but narrowly loses Ohio and Florida.


The second problem with presidential elections is the use of plurality,
winner-take-all rules to allocate electors. George Bush didn't need majority support to win all of Florida's electoral votes in 2000; he just needed more votes than anyone else. With Ralph Nader once again contesting battleground states, our plurality voting system again is reared its ugly head. By allowing splits in the majority vote, plurality voting can distort the will of the voters, a flaw that states could have fixed by adopting instant runoff voting.

In the U.S. Senate, Republicans hold a slim 51-49 seat majority. But all
competitive Senate races this year are in states that tilt toward Bush,
putting Democrats at an immediate disadvantage - a recurrent bias, in fact, as Bush carried 60 percent of states in 2000 even while losing the national vote. Given that Democrats should sweep Senate races in big states like New York, Illinois and California this year, they look guaranteed to win the overall popular vote in Senate races, yet face an uphill battle to win 51 seats.

Prospects in the U.S. House also look daunting for Democrats. Their problem is that they are live in more concentrated areas than Republican voters.

That's why George Bush carried 47 more of today's congressional districts than Al Gore in 2000. If a Gore clone and Bush clone had run as House candidates in every district, Republicans would have swept to a big congressional majority even while losing the national vote.

Adding to Democrats' disadvantage is the stranglehold of incumbency in House races. The House has changed control only once in the last 50 years, and more than 98 percent of incumbents have been re-elected each year since 1996. Without a popular surge toward one party, Democrats would need to effectively draw to an inside straight to win control of the House.

In the wake of the bitterness of the 2000 elections, expect a far uglier
post-election atmosphere if there is such a divide between votes and power.

Both parties will claim a mandate, and Democratic efforts to block
Republican initiatives will rise to new heights.

Democrats may have more incentives to look at reform in the short-term, but we all lose if Americans lose faith in our democratic institutions - and
what's unfair to one party today inevitably will hurt the other in the
future. Better for us to take a nonpartisan look at these unfair electoral
rules and consider proposals like full representation voting methods for the House, instant runoff voting for president, abolition of the Electoral
College and a weaker role for the U.S. Senate.

If the major parties again fail to act, its time to push for a strong
independent presidential candidate to carry that reform message in 2008.
Political reform is a powerful message for swing voters - and the right
message for those seeking a fair and accountable democracy.

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